Oklahoma Christian University Works to Right a 1969 Wrong Against Black Students

Billy Brooks and Oklahoma Christian University President John deSteiguer talk Wednesday after a panel discussion in the university’s Judd Theatre. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
“We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.

And we pray that our unity will one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love”

— “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

Billy Brooks opened the letter inviting him to Oklahoma Christian University and couldn’t believe what he was reading.

The Church of Christ-affiliated school that had him arrested and taken off campus in handcuffs just a few weeks shy of graduation, the university where he’d been a proud member of the men’s basketball team until he was unceremoniously expelled on racially tinged accusations — was asking him to come back.

“I was three to four weeks from graduation and all of a sudden my school was taken away from me. It was like my freedom was taken away from me,” Brooks said.

As he read the invitation from his Dayton, Ohio, home, Brooks, 74, recalled that he hadn’t been back to the university since March 6, 1969.

It had been 50 years, and he didn’t want to remember that “infamous” day he’d been thrown out of the school.

And yet Wednesday, he returned to Oklahoma Christian University.

It represented a moment of reckoning and reconciliation.

The lanky, gregarious Brooks and six other former black students who were part of the “Oklahoma Christian 18” returned to the Oklahoma City school to share their memories of the 1969 incident in which they were arrested and expelled from what was then Oklahoma Christian College.

The school called Wednesday’s gathering the “Commemoration of the Benson Hall Sit-In,” timed by Oklahoma Christian President John deSteiguer to occur on the 50th anniversary of the arrests and expulsions.

The day included frank discussions and prayer. It culminated with deSteiguer’s public apology to the former students.

“As today’s president of Oklahoma Christian University, I am sorry for what occurred in response to your entering Benson Hall the morning of March 6, 1969. I am sorry that there wasn’t a spirit of discussion that prevailed that permitted you audience with the administration in that moment,” deSteiguer said.

“I am sorry that the campus climate made some of you feel less than and unwelcomed. You should not have been arrested for trespass and you should not have been summarily dismissed from this institution. Your lives were disrupted unfairly.”

The gathering and the sit-in

In early March 1969, a group of mostly black students attended an off-campus gathering. It was later described by then-OC President James Baird as a party, a characterization disputed by the students. The students had signed out, as they were required to do by school policy, to leave campus. However, the students had broken an unspoken rule — two white female students were also at the gathering.

On March 6, 18 students were expelled and then arrested for trespassing on the campus. Most of them were black, but at least two were white. Some were expelled for attending the gathering, while others were expelled for trying to meet with the president to discuss the expulsions of their fellow students.

Many, like Brooks, were about to graduate. Those who were not from Oklahoma had nowhere to go. The expelled students scattered and never looked back.

There is little debate now that the expulsions were racially motivated.

Robert Edison, one of the former students, said last week, “That was the elephant in the room. Basically the message was the college frowned on any kind of interracial interaction.”

He said the resulting incident with the college president at Benson Hall wasn’t planned. It was a student rights demonstration more than a sit-in, he said, with no cursing or violence.

Ron Wright, a former student, said he had been out of town when the “party” occurred. Upon his return, he was asked to talk to students upset about the expulsion of the so-called party-goers.

Having grown up in the Church of Christ fellowship, Wright said he thought he had the right words to reason with Baird about the situation.

After all, it was a Christian school. People were supposed to love one another and treat their neighbor accordingly, right?

Wright said he went to Benson Hall that morning to explain to the president that what they thought was a party with people dancing and listening to music was a simple gathering of students wanting to congratulate a fellow student on the birth of a child.

“It was a group of people celebrating something but it was seen as an evil deed, beckoning evil spirits to do something in evil ways,” Wright said last week.

Wright said the college president refused to discuss the matter and told him that he had 10 minutes to leave the building. If he didn’t, he, too, would be arrested and expelled.

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Source: The Oklahoman